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Many nutrition surveys muddling India’s nutrition picture and policy making

Posted:  Wednesday, September 30, 2015

India has been home to malnutrition since time immemorial comparing badly to some of its Sub-Saharan counterparts, India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed India’s level of malnutrition a ‘national shame’. However, reforms can be undertaken only after nutrition and health surveys paint a clear picture. This is where the problem lies according to health experts. Delayed Government surveys, conflicting results and varying methods of data collection have compromised the true nutrition and health status of India.

The Rapid Survey on Children (RSOC) data recently released by the Ministry of Women and Child Development seems to paint a bright picture highlighting improvements in areas of stunting, wasting and exclusive breastfeeding since the National Family Health Survey-3 (NFHS-3) across many states.

However, health experts are not happy. If anything, the results of RSOC have only muddled the malnutrition scenario let alone guide policymaking. They cite the following reasons for the confusion:

Between the years 2004 and 2014, India witnessed the launch of many initiatives aimed to reduce poverty and improve nutritional outcomes. They include National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and improved Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme to name a few. Although these initiatives suffer from inefficiencies, it is not clear which of them have contributed to improved outcomes.

There are doubts about the very results of the surveys due to the lack of standardisation in data collection procedures.

As for the major health and nutrition surveys, there have been 3 rounds of NFHS; 4 District-Level Health Surveys (DLHS); 3 Annual Health Surveys (AHS); and the one-time surveys, namely UNICEF’s RSOC, and HUNGaMA survey by the Naandi Foundation. However, no 2 surveys can be compared due to variation in geographies covered and frequency of data collection as well as shifting reference points for anthropometry measurements in children.

Moreover, the results from these innumerable surveys actually contradict each other. Even the most recent RSOC is a one-time data set with the Government itself casting doubts by not releasing the detailed state wise fact sheet.

Research reveals that investing a dollar in improving the nutritional health of the country could yield rich dividends of 16 dollars of productivity gains in the labour force. This gain itself should be a motivation for India to clear the air on nutrition surveys and ensure clarity in both the results and the policies.

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